Bless This Mess has a familiar premise: Rio (Bell) and Mike (Shepard)—who pride themselves on the fact that they’ve never once fought in their first year of marriage—decide to leave New York City for Nebraska, to live on a farm left to Mike by his recently deceased great aunt, Maggie. Rio is a lifelong New Yorker, while Mike hails from the suburbs of St. Louis, which makes him think he has rural life in his blood. (By the by, it’s strange that the series emphasizes the idea that Mike and Rio are so happily married: It makes their life-altering decision even more baffling.) When they get to the farm, it turns out they’ve been sold a bill of goods, as the house Mike remembers from his childhood is run down, the soil is useless, and next-door neighbor Rudy (Ed Begley Jr.) now lives in the barn (coming into the main house to use the bathroom “sometimes”). Then there’s Constance (Pam Grier)—a woman with seemingly endless patience and a will-they/won’t-they thing with Rudy—who owns the town general store, serves as sheriff, and also runs the local theatre. Small-town life, you know?
The obvious point of comparison is Green Acres, only Bless This Mess makes its leads excited to embark on their new way of life: When the series begins, Rio and Mike are in a rush to quit their jobs and get the hell out of New York and into Nebraska farm culture. A more contemporary inspiration might be Schitt’s Creek, especially its first season—one that’s particularly apparent when it comes to Rudy, who essentially fills the same role as Chris Elliott’s Roland Schitt: In both cases, a talented comic actor plays the writing’s weakest link, the town weirdo who halts everyone else’s momentum. Unlike Roland, though, Rudy literally slows everything down, with mixed results. (It works better in the context of his relationship with Constance than it does his interactions with anyone else.)
The fact that Bless This Mess doesn’t have the most original premise isn’t necessarily a knock against it. Series co-creator (with Bell) Elizabeth Meriwether is responsible for ABC’s successful freshman comedy, Single Parents, and just came off a seven-season run at the helm of one of the all-time great hangout sitcoms, New Girl. Bell is a triple threat, acting in, writing, and directing projects from Childrens Hospital to In A World…, and Dax Shepard, on Parenthood and elsewhere, has proven himself as more than “the Punk’d guy.” The talent behind Bless This Mess is the epitome of competent comedy.
In fact, if the series succeeds it’s thanks to Bell and Shepard’s pleasant chemistry, which carries the premise further than seems possible if the leads were cast differently. Bell’s performance in particular is the key ingredient, and it’s clear from the pilot that she’s so dynamic and magnetic that she could easily (and perhaps unfortunately) steamroll her co-star. See the scene in which Rio has a phone conversation with her mother (Susie Essman) while in the middle of a panic attack in front of a cow, a comic master class all its own. Every line and sound that comes out of Bell’s mouth is a reason for Bless This Mess to exist. (Mike, who receives the pilot epiosde’s emotional lesson, doesn’t spin out quite as much as Rio, which leaves Shepard slightly stuck in the role of straight man. It wouldn’t hurt to have him match Bell’s intensity more often.)
What ultimately doesn’t work about the series’ approach, though, is that being asked to root for Rio and Mike is being asked to root for gentrifiers. The move to Nebraska is their choice, one based on nothing more than a free house (understandable) and stereotypes (less understandable). There’s no real rationale offered for the part about wanting to give up their current careers—he’s a music journalist, she’s a therapist—to take up a new vocation they know nothing about. (They can’t even tell the difference between a weed and alfalfa.) The series’ antagonists are married farmers Beau (David Koechner) and Kay (Lennon Parham) Bowman, who want to buy Maggie’s farm to expand into the slaughtering business, and while they’re patronizing toward Rio and Mike in every scene… they have plenty of reason to be patronizing. Especially as the newcomers take a “What, like it’s hard?” approach to farming. The culture shock alone is enough to drive the series, without the protagonists’ rather unsympathetic attempt to become farmers.
In fact, despite being set in a “mess” of a home, there’s nothing rough around the series’ edges, which is a shame, given that Bell, Shepard, and Meriwether have all earned high praise for far less polished projects. Perhaps it’s simply a function of ABC’s evolving house style—the days of looser, coarser comedies like Happy Endings, Suburgatory, Don’t Trust the B… in Apartment 23, and Selfie are gone—but Bless This Mess comes out fully formed, with little (if any) room to grow. “Pleasant” is a fair description of the series; so is “safe.” It feels pristine right out of the box. That might secure it a longer life at ABC, but it’s also a missed opportunity to roll around in the mud.
Bless This Mess premieres tonight at 9:30 on ABC.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.